Georg Lukács said that Dante marked the beginning of the transition from the epic to the novel, citing the fact that in Dante, “architectural” elements conquer the “organic” elements. In simpler terms, characters are able to lead “autonomous” lives and construct their own destinies, rather than being subject to the cumulative destiny of a greater whole.
It is characteristic of the novel for characters to act in opposition to this “organic” and predetermined destiny. Lukács’ theory is evident in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), which is often hailed as the “first novel.” Robinson Crusoe is consumed by his desire to impose man-made structure upon his organic and natural surroundings. This desire reflects the literary transition from the era of the epic to the current reign of the novel.
Defoe’s work therefore meets the requirements of the first “novel” by Georg Lukács’ definition. Crusoe’s efforts, musings, and decisions required to create man-made structures allow for the rise of the concept of “interiority” that is central to the novel as a genre. Through his obsession with determining his own destiny, creating manmade structure in a natural world, and the interiority that exists as a result of these obsessions, Robinson Crusoe is established as the first novel, and Crusoe as the first truly novelistic hero in literature. His actions serve as a metaphor for the death of the epic and the rise of the novel.
Once Robinson Crusoe is stranded on the island, he lives in total isolation for the majority of his years there. This immediately separates him from the epic hero, seeing that Lukács defines the epic hero by the fact that his destiny is directly connected to the society in which he lives. Since Crusoe is living in complete isolation, there is no world, no society for him to be linked to; he himself is the only human being in his world. He is his own society.
Crusoe makes this realization, recognizing that he “might [as well] call [himself] king or emperor over the whole country,” because “there were no rivals; [he] had no competitor.” Upon recognizing his solitude, he decides that he is free to construct whatever man-made architecture he sees fit, in both a literal and figurative sense.
Figuratively, he begins constructing his own destiny and pursuing the fate and lifestyle that he desires, free of the traditional societal constraint that is seen in the epic. He is no longer held back by social constructs such as money, marriage, family, among many others. Crusoe even comments on his freedom to create his own utopia– his own “ideal” destiny, reflecting to himself: “whether thus conversing mutually with [his] own thoughts. . . was not better than the utmost enjoyment of human society in the world” (108).
In a literal and physical sense, he brings the normal structures of man-made society to the deserted island, building many shelters, fences, and even one home that he describes as his “castle.” Finding freedom in his aloneness, Crusoe takes on the traits that Lukács believes are characteristic of novelistic heroes. Immediately upon landing, he begins to change the natural state of the island into whatever structures he sees fit, planning to transform a cave into one of his main homes, drawing up plans to build a “warehouse or magazine, a kitchen, a dining-room, and a cellar” (60).
Beyond physical structures, Crusoe also imposes the hierarchal structure of slavery on the island. With “Friday,” he immediately “taught him to say Master, and then let him know that was to be [Crusoe’s] name” (163). His isolation provides Crusoe with the means to shape and form his organic surroundings into the man-made structure that he, and only he, desires. He is free of the ties that the epic hero is bogged down by, and is able to live in a truly individualistic manner, as Lukács asserts that the heroes of the novel do.
Lukács also describes the novel as “the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God.” While there are heavily religious overtones in Robinson Crusoe, that does not detract from the fact that Crusoe often uses the word “king” self-referentially and sees himself as the god of his domain. Crusoe ultimately does give himself up to God, and sees his salvation from the shipwreck as an act of divine providence, but there are ways in which the novel can be seen as a literary work existing in the absence of God.
Particularly in his interactions with the “savages” and Friday, he seems to put himself on a god-like pedestal. When looking at the excerpt in which Crusoe saves Friday from the savages who are trying to kill and eat him, it is clear that there are parallels between Crusoe being saved from the wreck and giving himself up to God, and Friday being saved from the cannibals and giving himself up to Crusoe. Friday sees Crusoe as possessing divine powers because of the mysterious power of Crusoe’s gun. After Crusoe kills Friday’s pursuers, Friday “was so frighted with the fire, and noise of [Crusoe’s] piece; that he stood stock still, and neither came forward or went backward” (160). Friday is petrified of the power Crusoe possesses with his weaponry, incapable of understanding how he “had kill’d the other Indian so far off” (161)–this inspires Friday’s submission to Crusoe. He’s omnipotent, as is God.
This submission exists as a product of both the fear of Crusoe’s wrath and the gratitude Friday feels towards Crusoe for saving him. This is identical to the feeling of Crusoe toward God; he sees God’s mercy in the fact that God spared his life while letting the others die, yet he is afraid that he must spend the rest of his life repenting for his sins as a young man or God will unleash his wrath and send Crusoe to hell. The parallels between Crusoe’s submission to God and Friday’s submission to Crusoe establish the fact that, while Crusoe may not explicitly state that he sees himself as a God, he acts as if he does. This suggests that he, being isolated on the raw and natural island, lives in a world where God is absent, and Crusoe therefore feels that he is the one to fill the void, being the most powerful being in his microcosm of a world. This suggests that his story, as Lukács asserts the novel does, exists in a world where God does not exist.
These two factors–Crusoe’s constant striving to impose inorganic structure on his organic world and his god-like power to determine the outcome of his own life–both create the interiority that we see in the novel. Robinson Crusoe is entirely made up of one man’s inner thoughts, inner struggles, and is told solely from his point of view.
A large portion of the novel is told in a journal form, which gives a level of intimacy with the protagonist that would never exist if Robinson Crusoe was en epic rather than a novel. The reader is given a direct look into Crusoe’s inner musings in a pure, unadulterated way; which is exemplified when Crusoe even makes an “evil/good” list, weighing the pros and cons of his loneliness. Under the category of “evil,” Crusoe lists things such as “I am divided from mankind, a solitaire, one banish’d from human society. I have not clothes to cover me.” He then responds to this point with a “good” counterpoint, reminding himself: “I am not starv’d and perishing on a barren place, affording no sustenance” (54).
While in an epic, the hero would simply arrive on the island, take whatever action he saw fit (based on his subservience to society), and never reveal any of his own thoughts on the subject, Crusoe’s telling of his tale is purely based around his thoughts, sorrows, and triumphs. There is simply nothing else for him to talk about. Just his musings re his existence and situation, providing for a sense of interiority that can only exist within the genre of the novel. Lukács’ theory supports this notion, since he describes the form of a novel as one that is very similar to an autobiography.
Like the autobiography, Lukács argues that the form of a novel relies on two opposing factors: the “contingent world” and the “problematic individual.” If a character exists within a world that lacks conflict, then the individual is only able to see the conflicts that exist within himself. This, too, is the case with Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe is free of the bridles of society on his island, and while his life is difficult and he must work hard to survive, his world is devoid of the issues that are found in civilization. Such issues can only come as a result of human interaction, and Crusoe has no humans to interact with. Therefore, the only issues and conflicts that Crusoe is able to dwell upon are those that exist within himself, and that is what the novel is centralized around. We see issues of his many failures to survive, his ongoing struggle with religion, and his occasional longing for the comforts of a civilized world.
Based on Lukács’ theory of the novel, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is the first novel. Lukács asserts that a novel must display interiority in its characters, which Defoe’s novel did on a revolutionary level for its time. Furthermore, the structure of a novel must display the conquering of organic elements by man-made, architectural, elements; meaning that characters in the novel are autonomous rather than simply pieces of a greater societal whole. The characters and structure of Robinson Crusoe fit all of the necessary descriptions as described by Lukács, therefore Defoe’s work can be accepted as the first novel, Robinson Crusoe himself can be taken as the first novelistic hero, and Robinson Crusoe can be accepted the first of many works to exist in an era of literature abandoned by God.